Kate Mulvany in Beached | Griffin Theatre

Beached has washed up on Sydney’s theatrical shore with a reputation that precedes it, having garnered both the 2010 Patrick White Award (a Sydney Theatre Company initiative in play since the turn of the millennium) and a shortlisting for the 2011 Griffin Award. It caps a metaphorically groaning mantelpiece in a pocket rocket of a career for the award-winning playwright Melissa Bubnic.

It’s a long time since I’ve seen Gia Carides on a Sydney stage. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Gia Carides on a Sydney stage. More’s the pity. Her performance as Jojo, the overbearing bogan mum of ginormous teen Artie (Blake Davis), is like a documentary on diehard Today Tonight viewers. No. That’s below the belt. Anyway, the point is, Carides is truly great. No wonder her famous husband gave her a well-deserved ovation. For an actor of such petite stature, she’s ginormous, too. Her abrasive, protective, manipulative character fills the room.

Of course, views of her character are likely to be highly contentious. If I heard her correctly in a brief encounter over a glass of wine on opening night , Bubnic sees her as a loving mother. Whereas I receive her as somewhat more sinister, albeit not necessarily in consciously or deliberately so: she loves Artie to death and that’s the nub of the problem. It’s a hard role to pull off, but GC has us seeing and believing.

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Kate Mulvany is hot on her heels, as Louise, an indoctrinated public servant (case manager), with her own problems. Her dank hair, slumped posture and dour expression says it all. For an actor so electrifyingly imbued with the life-force, this must’ve been quite a feat, too.

Davis, as Arty, is a thin, young man trapped in a big man’s body. To effect this, designer James Browne has him submerged in a massive bean bag. It’s a nifty idea, on paper, but doesn’t look as good as it might’ve. The rest of the set is, for mine, the big minus of this production: much of it consists of a heavy framework onto which camera, or cameras, are mounted. Yes, Artie has been singled out for voyeuristic exploitation by a reality television show. The intermittent manipulation of this equipment looks and is awkward. It intrudes and interrupts. I don’t think it has to be this literal. Screens are in use, too, as seems to be so damn fashionable right now. Director Shannon Murphy ought to have reined-in her design team in deference to the heart of the drama.

Mind you, that heart is somewhat muddled. What one assumes will prove a damning expose on the human cost of “reality” TV wanders off in the direction of curious romance between mismatched misfits: Louise and Artie. This is a dubious digression from the “I am not an animal” aspect of thee work, that reminds us not to assume, not to judge, not to allow ourselves the indulgence of succumbing to seductive feelings of superiority, whether over other races, religions, creeds, colours, the aged, disabled, obese, or anyone else. This isn’t to say I mistook the intention of Bubnic’s Beached for a glib, one-dimensional morality tale, just that, even while Artie’s desperately seeking Artie, the play seems to be locked in a similar struggle to find itself. Since we’re all locked in that struggle, by dint of birth, perhaps this is the point. Perhaps.

Davis is good, making Arty a guileless innocent who grapples with identity and individuality; ironically, not so much hampered by the physical baggage he carries, but the co-dependency that Jojo has fostered and fed for so long.

Arka Das is the archetypal go-getting reality tv producer, who cares about ratings, not whether Artie, awaiting gastric bypass surgery, lives or dies. Das’ strident performance is relative to his role, but his intensity and overly emphatic delivery of his lines tends to aggravating overkill.

Beached is a solid play, with at least one or two exceptionally well-drawn characters and memorable performances. I just don’t reckon it’s quite worth its 400kg in gold quite yet. Or at least not in this form, in this production. Room for development? A dramaturgical makeover? I think so. It’s no cream puff, but neither does it offer the satisfying, high-quality theatrical protein its pedigree promises.

The details: Beached plays the Griffin Theatre until August 31. Tickets on the company website.